Veteran business travelers may recall a series of clever HSBC advertisements popping up at international airports years ago when the global bank positioned itself as “the world’s local bank.” One of its most memorable ads featured an image of a cricket with the message: USA: Pest. China: Pet. Northern Thailand: Appetizer.

The tagline underneath read: Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

Though that ad campaign was many years ago and HSBC has since rebranded itself, the lesson from that poster still resonates today, illustrating how people from different cultures can have wildly different interpretations of the same thing.

Now, if people from different cultures have such divergent understandings for something as small as an insect, imagine what that means for the way they communicate, think, behave, and collaborate with one another on business-related matters. Even subtle gestures or nonverbal cues and tones can be interpreted differently depending on what part of the world you’re in, which is why cultural awareness is important.

The impact on business

These cultural differences can affect our business relationships and corporate travel, whether one is communicating with an overseas colleague via Zoom or Slack or meeting an international client in their home country. Without a conscious awareness of how our biases shape our perceptions, behaviors, and styles of speaking, we are potentially creating situations that lead to misunderstandings and tension in our business dealings with people from a different culture, whether we realize it or not.

Communication breakdowns between cultures may also be common. After all, cultural norms shape what is said, meant, and how communication is interpreted. In other words, cultural context influences meaning,

That’s why cultural intelligence (aka CQ or cultural quotient) is so important. CQ focuses on one’s ability to relate and work effectively across cultures. People with a high CQ tend to be more aware of these differences and can interact more effectively with those outside their own cultures.

With the business environment becoming increasingly diverse, it is ever more important for companies to instill cultural intelligence in their employees.

Incidentally, organizations that nurture cultural intelligence may expect greater communications, innovation, and creativity among their staff.

Having a heightened CQ also can have a positive impact on sales performance in the context of selling to clients with different cultural backgrounds. Those with a higher CQ are generally more successful at cross-cultural negotiations as they know how to read nonverbal cues and motivate people from different backgrounds.

Beneficial for all employees

Many corporate travel programs offer cultural training to educate travelers on the norms, perceptions, and attitudes of the society they may encounter during their journeys. During this training, travelers may learn about cultural differences in communication patterns, dress code, etiquette rules, presentation styles, and social interactions.

But business travelers and their business leaders aren’t the only ones who can benefit from this training. Given the multicultural nature of companies today, non-traveling employees could employ this knowledge to effectively collaborate with their colleagues who may have different ideas about how meetings should be conducted, attitudes toward group decision-making, and beliefs around organizational hierarchy.

Having a culturally intelligent workforce is also essential for companies with a diverse customer base. When business leaders and employees have greater cultural understanding and empathy toward customers, it may lead to better service and give an organization a competitive edge.

Getting started

To develop cultural intelligence and communication skills in the workplace, you may begin by helping employees hone this skill through awareness and education as well as hire talent who exhibit a high CQ. While these cultural intelligence in business initiatives generally fall with HR, other stakeholders may also be involved, such as a travel manager who provides training to prepare travelers for their international journeys. Cross-cultural education also naturally fits in with a company’s diversity, equity, and inclusion program.

Companies and their leaders can also tap into their employee resource groups (ERG) – voluntary, employee-led groups that come together based on a common interest or background – to foster greater understanding and unity. For example, American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) recently launched Asian and Latino/Hispanic heritage ERGs, both of which will focus on educating the broader GBT population about those cultures, norms, and expectations.

Seasoned business travelers accustomed to navigating cultural differences from their experiences abroad also may be utilized as a resource by sharing their insights.

Hiring a consultancy firm is another avenue companies are pursuing to help with a CQ strategy. As a recent Skift article highlights, there is a rise in the use of “culture coaches” to train employees in CQ, mainly focusing on building intercultural communications among teams. Such coaches can help workers better navigate social and professional situations with more sensitivity toward another’s background, instill a greater self-awareness of one’s own biases, and offer ways to adapt to other cultures, and have a better sense of diversity, more easily.

To learn more about how different cultures see the world and spur ideas on the training and skills you can offer at your company, check out this Atlas article on country-by-country etiquette tips.